The Pequod Review:
Warren Ellis is an extraordinarily accomplished musician; in addition to being a founding member of the instrumental trio Dirty Three, he has been a twenty-five year member of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds where he helped lead a stunning evolution in the band's style. His first book Nina Simone's Gum begins with an anecdote — in 1999, following an astonishing (and rare) public performance by Nina Simone at a festival curated by Nick Cave, Ellis crept on stage, removed the piece of gum she had stuck under the piano, and stashed it away in a Tower Records shopping bag. This piece of gum has stayed with Ellis for the last twenty-two years, growing in significance each passing year. Ellis uses this experience as a launching point to explore more generally how small objects can accumulate powerful meaning and create deep (and even spiritual) connections with others:
The gum was real; the rest was, to some people’s disappointment, celluloid real. I hadn’t even cooked the meal of eel and never spent a night in the house. I arrived on the shoot rather nervous about how I would cook and talk. Iain Forsyth, one of the directors, sensed my anxiety, and I explained why. He took me aside and said, ‘It’s a film, Warren. You don’t actually have to cook the meal’ and pointed to someone preparing the dish in a makeshift kitchen. Something shifted when others became aware of the gum’s existence. I thought about how many tiny secrets there must be out there in the universe waiting to be revealed. How many people have secret places with abandoned dreams, full of wonder.”
Our connection to things. The stories they remind us of, and the past places and times they make us land in. Time travel. Connection. Shared stories. I have several of these strange time capsules hidden around the house. They make me think of the wonderful Museum of Innocence in Istanbul founded by Orhan Pamuk. But without a story yet shared. Things that make anywhere feel like somewhere.
Ellis's book covers other ground too, including his formative musical experiences as a child and his artistic process. He also has a warm tribute to his collaborator:
I have been on many stages and in many studios with Nick Cave for over a quarter of a century. I watched Nick fall off the stage in Iceland at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival in June 2013 during ‘Jubilee Street’. ‘Look at me now,’ and he turns around, throws the mic back on stage, takes a step, and falls two metres off the ramp down into a pit, and disappears. He just misstepped off this walkway he originally requested so he could get closer to the audience. He was gone so fast. The band kept playing faster and louder. It was the second song into the set. He got up and he instantly looked so diminished and wilted, like a pressed flower. He was obviously really wounded. He was helped up back to the stage by Ant and Barak, two guys on the crew, and finished the song. Then he walked over to me, placed his hand on my shoulder and spat out a whole bunch of blood, and I asked, ‘Are you all right?’
And he replied, ‘No.’
I asked him what he wanted to do.
‘Keep playing,’ he replied.
He sat down at the piano for ‘Tupelo’ and finished the whole show. A doctor was waiting in his dressing-room after the concert. He was X-rayed that evening in the emergency ward in Reykjavík. He had fractured four lower vertebrae. We played Glastonbury Festival the next day and finished the festival run.
I am looking at a photo of Nick from rehearsals for the Skeleton Tree tour, in Melbourne, day 3, 2017. It’s from my point of view. Matt Crosbie is looking on doing the sound. Nick’s arms are outstretched, I think it’s ‘Tupelo’. I took it because it was the first time I saw his old stage self in the rehearsals, his old self from before losing his son Arthur in 2015. I have watched him perform for over thirty-five years, in front, behind and next to him. And there he was. The moment spiritual. Seemingly coming to his own rescue. I stopped playing and took the photo. Watching his transformation on the tour for Skeleton Tree then into recording Ghosteen and beyond remains a transcendence and transformation that continually astounds and humbles me. A beautiful friend.